Thursday, 15 July 2010

Just Don't Call It Networking

I was asked to MC at a great PRIA event this week, called "The Perfect Pitch" - and was asked to say a few words about networking. I pondered the subject and promptly realised the only problem I have with networking is the word itself. It sounds so...contrived. It suggests that when you 'network', that you're doing it for the express purpose of getting something out of it. I don't think I've ever talked to a stranger, at a work function or other, just to elevate my career. I simply genuinely enjoy talking to people - even the arseholes (more on that further down).

I have to admit my very first experience of networking was a harrowing one. I was 21 and working for a company called Great Big Events, and my bosses were a lovely young couple whom I adored. That is except for the fact they regularly took me to very corporate networking events and forced me to *ugh* network in the scariest of ways. ie, they would slap a name badge on me, push me into a crowd of strangers, and tell me I was not allowed to come back until I had met 7 unconnected people. Even to a confident girl this is not an enjoyable task, particularly when every now and again I would look over to them and they'd be watching my awkward progress like hawks (bless them).

Looking back, perhaps being thrown in the deep end like this was the making of me - I certainly feel like I can walk up to anyone now and get them talking, however I still take umbrage at the N word. So for arguments sake, I'll call my version of this practice as simply 'being open'. I think it's important for everyone to be perpetually open to meeting new people, making new friends, broadening their circle - but particularly so for anyone in the PR & media industry. The variety of work we are required to do becomes exponentially easier as our contact list grows. Being able to pick up the phone and call someone who is connected to whatever it is you need to find is a daily task, so the more people you can call the merrier.

That said, while you're out being open and talking to everyone you can, there are obviously several types of people who will undoubtedly make your job as a PR easier and sweeter:

Meeting media
A 5 minute face to face chat can literally be the equivalent of years of email banter. It's wonderful for both parties to put a face to the name, so it's very important for PRs to meet with the media they deal with the most. Young PRs should hang in there if they are finding it tough to actually get to meet many journos. I remember feeling like I was never going to be that PR girl who knew lots of media - but rest assured if you put yourself out there enough it will eventually happen. The best way to achieve this is to ask your boss, senior colleagues, anyone in the industry to assist you in meeting them. When I was younger, my boss Mark Cavanagh was wonderful at this - he took me to lots of events and introduced me to everyone he could. I have always done the same with my staff, and actually feel very jealous of my newest girl Jessie who has met more industry people in her first 4 months at Social Diary than I did in my first 4 years! Most media love meeting PRs, it makes the jobs of both sides easier, and that much warmer when you know each other personally.

Remember it's really important to be good to all the juniors, as they will be the ones who will rise through the ranks with you. Don't overlook them - many of the Editors of the top mags today were Fashion Assistants and even interns when I started out! Oh Lord, I'm showing my age ;)

Meeting other PRs
Oooh...my favourite meetings of all. I have always loved it when PRs gather together which is pretty obvious seeing as I ended up creating an entire business around it! By knowing and having a camaraderie amongst your peers you can develop a tremendous support network, never moreso important than in times of crisis. Like when you stuff up, get fired, or need a new job. That PR you meet at a party could be your next boss, or put you forward for a job at their company (remember the majority of PR jobs are never advertised), or simply be a wonderful ally to bounce ideas off.

While you're busy meeting fabulous PRs, I do highly recommend you find yourself a mentor. I don't know what I would have done without mine - my first being Annalise Brown, who is now the GM of Splendid Communications. She was an old school friend who started in the industry a few years before me, and was responsible for scoring me my jobs at Colvin Communications, Jonathan Ward, Cav Con and Spin. When I applied for the job at Cav Con my test was to write a media release about the shampoo I used, and Annalise came over to help. I got the job of course! I used to call her all the time for advice, usually whispering because my boss was in the next room, eg. "um Annalise...what does above the line and below the line mean??" (I never studied PR so had to teach myself alot and *ahem* blag my way through when I was starting out). My next mentor was of course Mark Cavanagh, who has taught me so much about this industry that I am forever in his debt. And the only way you can repay a mentor is to become one yourself, which I happily am to many of my previous staff. I love that my ex-employee Sara Bray is now fast becoming a mentor to younger PRs herself. I am beyond proud.

Meeting potential clients
Literally anyone you meet could be a potential client, or someone that you can simply give advice to about PR. The number of times over the years that I won new business simply after casually chatting to someone at a party, over dinner, at BBQs, even on planes, is numerous. My advice here? Don't do the hard sell! There's nothing that is more of a turn off, or more the trademark of the perpetual 'networker', cue business card being shoved in your face before you've even gotten through the introductions. Just be yourself, talk about what you do with passion but don't shove it down people's throats. People are more likely to want to do business with you if you take this approach.

Meeting celebrities
Let's be frank here, life becomes alot easier for PRs when you actually know the person you're sending the invitation to. Having a bunch of celebrity contacts who will support your events is great, and chances are that celeb will actually turn up rather than never even see your invitation (see previous blog: The Art of The Invitation). Many celebrities have moved their way up through their career as I moved up through mine, and we would help each other along the way whenever we could - they would come to my events and I would put them forward for MC roles and pass on opportunities. There are so many symbiotic relationships within our industry it's important to help each other out as much as possible.

So you may be scared of walking up to strangers at a party and starting a conversation. The best thing to do is ask questions - according to Dale Carnegie's famous book written in 1936, "How To Win Friends & Influence People" people simply love talking about themselves, and it's easy to get them started. Personally I absolutely love asking people what they do for a living and refuse to believe this is a boring conversation starter as some people suggest. What could be more interesting that finding out what someone does for the majority of their life? My favourite response to date was when a girl responded that she was the Editor of a fetish magazine about urine. She wasn't kidding - and I was duly fascinated (we talked all night).

When in doubt, Carnegie believes that the sweetest sound a person can hear is their own name! And what's the worst that could happen if you initiate a conversation? Oh that's right, the person you approach could be a total arsehole. When this happens, I just laugh and ponder the eternal mysteries of human behaviour. I used to take it personally, but I promise that you stop worrying about this eventually. Just smile sweetly, thank your lucky stars that you aren't rude like them and move on to someone friendlier! Always keep a sense of humour about it all and you'll be fighting new friends off in no time. Just don't network, promise? ;)

xxx Tiff

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